Sunday, December 28, 2014

Gruene Hall: A Snake. A Beer. A Memory.

Walking into Gruene Hall, boots are greeted not only by worn wooden floorboards, but with a clacking sound as heels scoot over weathered metal license plates that are nailed to the floor. I wasn’t sure if their purpose was to add visual interest or just plain necessity to cover up decaying wood: in any case, I liked it.

Feeling the lightness of an empty pocketbook (it was the day after Christmas!), this sojourn was inspired by one word, free.  And if this four letter word wasn’t sufficient enough to prompt a visit, it was kid and wheel-chair friendly too.  With two other generations in tow, we were in need of both. 

Walking in the open doorway I was welcomed by a bar with a Lone Star neon sign to remind me where I was.  My feet followed my ears.  Around the bar’s corner, our crew of seven waltzed into a large, dimly lit space with the tunes of live country music drifting overhead.  After finding a table we ordered a round of drinks and a few bags of chips and nuzzled into one of numerous picnic tables. The multitude of carved etchings that decorated our table made me wish I had brought a Swiss Army or Sharpie.  It also prompted the memory of the last time I carved my name into a piece of wood.  A visit to the Principal’s office followed, along with an apology and sanding paper to erase the small trace I aspired to leave behind my 8th grade year. 

Current reality reappeared as I cradled my long neck.  A family played Scrabble next to us, while another gathered to exchange Christmas gifts on the dance floor.  The woman sitting at the end of our table took the liberty of freeing her toes from restraint and sat happily with bare feet swaying to the band’s melody.  The combination of beer, live music, and my surroundings soothed my soul. 

As I made my way to the ladies room, I was startled to see a young girl with a small snake curled around her neck, its name – Willie, and she wore it like a prized accessory.  On a normal day, I wouldn’t have attempted small talk with a snake totting individual: I would have scrambled – bolted, but not the day I went to the Gruene Hall.  This Texas gem slithered its way into my heart.

No Sharpie or Swiss Army required, unlike middle school, I would return…

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Baked by Amy's

Standing behind the counter was a petite, doe eyed woman with a button nose, rosy cheeks and a glowing sprit that nearly out sparkled the glistening sugar confections surrounding her – Erin Fellows.  If I didn’t know better I would have thought I was in the presence of a grown Cindy Lou, the adorable blue eyed animated toddler that was so cute she warmed the heart of the Grinch and made it grow three times larger.
Entering Baked by Amy’s is both cozy and inviting.  Fresh, brightly colored flowers are standard staples on their tables and the two black chalk board walls with pastel scribbles and drawings make the intimate space feel fun and whimsical - alive.  I’ve been quietly stalking this business since moving back to Austin four months ago.  My addiction started with their Reece’s Cupcake.   My mouth waters remembering the dense chocolate cake and whipped peanut butter frosting, topped with bits of crumbled Reece’s.  Biting into this luscious confection, your mouth is further rewarded by a hidden layer of thick chocolate that lurks beneath the surface of the buttercream.  Heaven. Putting pride aside, I have a confession.  I lick the paper clean, twice…every time!

Discovering the gourmet goodness within this little bake shop is nostalgic.  It reminds me of grammar school days, a time when I could go home after school and eat a whole box of Little Debbie Nutter Butters – guilt free (until mom noticed!).   I’ve grown, and so have my taste buds.  I no longer see the appeal of devouring a box of snack cakes, but I do see value in finding a treat that can make me recall a time when it didn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Not unlike the Grinch, my heart has grown since discovering my little neighborhood bakery…and possibly, my waistline too.   Head Baker and Managing Partner, Erin Fellows may not be Cindy Lou, but I’m secretly hoping her middle name starts with an “L”.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Friday, July 11, 2014

Barefoot in Paris

Cemeteries train the eye to glance downward. As if the thought of death weren’t somber enough, most are flat and grey.  The only breath of life – the occasional wilting flowers that rest beside headstones. If you have the opportunity to visit the cemetery, Père Lachaise in Paris, you’ll find it challenging to look anywhere else, but up.

Paris has a way of making chipped paint look remarkably appealing.  Even the forgotten tombs that are overrun with weeds and bear headstones with etchings that have long faded, still manage to draw attention. My inspiration for the visit was to see the final resting place for people I’ve admired through history.  Maps are offered for a few euros that highlight the famous gravesites.  You’ll want to allow time to meander.  This cemetery boasts over 100 acres.  Stone pathways snake through the grounds, along with gravel paths that sneak around tombs. You will also want to wear good walking shoes…I didn’t, which is why I ended up barefoot.

Père Lachaise combines art and nature, seamlessly. It feels like a serene park, with graves being the decorative accent pieces to the gently rolling landscape.  Patches of greenery and the occasional stone bench allow you to sit and breathe in the stillness.  If you like sculpture and architecture, your eyes will be rewarded.  Countless grave sites are designed as tiny chapels; just big enough to allow one or two mourners to kneel inside.  It isn’t rare to find beautiful stained glass windows adorning crumbling walls, and relics from centuries past inside these architectural gems.  Some doors remain open, while countless others are bolted shut and overrun with decades worth of neglect that rears its face through thick masses of cobwebs.

After spending two hours within the stone walls of this Paris landmark, I had only made it to three out of ten historical figures I had intended to visit: Edith Piaf, Camille Pissarro, and Gertrude Stein.  Victor Hugo, Eugene Delacroix, Gustave Caillebotte, Jacques-Louis David , Jim Morrison, Balzac, and Oscar Wilde would have to wait for a future visit…or not.

Père Lachaise eloquently drapes death in serenity and beauty.  After leaving, I felt more alive.  My feet were bare, but my soul fulfilled.

Friday, June 13, 2014


Recently, I had three hours to enjoy the quaint village of Fontainebleau before heading off on a guided tour of the famous Palace of Fontainebleau. After enjoying a quiet meal that consisted of French onion soup, slices of fresh bread, and delicious red wine, I grabbed a book from the pint-sized English book shop, Reelbooks and headed off to discover a chateau I had only known through books.

Once the tour ended, I had walked through eight centuries of history! My personal highlights included: Napoleon's throne room, along with Josephine's bed chambers, Marie Antoinette's card room and her mother of pearl writing desk, and last but not least, a library that housed over 40,000 volumes of leather bound books. 

From beginning to end, this trip exceeded expectations!

Thursday, May 8, 2014


“I wouldn’t consider a program to be serious if it didn’t teach Escoffier, or classic French techniques” Julia Child        

  Nicknamed “King of Chefs and Chef of Kings”, Georges Auguste Escoffier’s list of loyal followers included royals, writers, movie stars, and divas. In contrast, his portrait shows a grounded man of distinction.  He appears deep in thought, knuckles perched under his dimpled chin, a grey mustache frowns just above his lips.  His other well-manicured hand often times resting on papers, while his fingers hold a fountain pen, he exudes stoic confidence. His name is associated with some of Europe’s most legendary hotels including: the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo, the Carlton and Savoy in London, and the Ritz in Paris.  And with two culinary schools in the United States, nearly 80 years after his death his presence and teachings continue to flourish.  I wanted to know why.

My curiosity brought me to his home, the Musée Escoffier de l'Art Culinaire.   The afternoon I arrived in the sleepy picturesque village of Villeneuve-Loubet, I was cheerfully greeted by the assistant curator, Julie Durand - no stranger herself to the culinary world as her father is a retired chocolatier from Aix-en-Provence.  Her admiration and enthusiasm for Escoffier is contagious.  Listening to the animated Ms. Durand was the next best thing to traveling back in time.  Walking through his home, she pointed out personal relics that included Escoffier’s hand written love letters to his wife, family photographs and countless notes of accolades from his admirers.  Leather bound books were abundant in his study, which also happens to be the room where he was born.  Here you will find first editions of his own work, Le Guide Culinaire and Ma Cuisine.  

Upstairs the visitor is treated to two exceptional spaces.  One room, located behind a velvet red drape, is devoted to L’Art Pâtissier.  The scent of dozens of edible sculptures will leave your nose happy and your mouth watering.  This space also houses one of the oldest sugar sculptures in the world, a beautiful train that sparkled like fresh snow, dating from the 1920’s.  The second room is the Salle des Menus.  If you appreciate art, poetry, and cuisine, here you will find happiness.  Escoffier’s brilliance stretched beyond his ingenuity in the kitchen.  He saw the design of menus as an opportunity to enhance and prolong the dining experience.  When creating a menu, he set out for it to flow like a poem.  The words became intangible elements, foreplay to the meal, creating anticipation among the diners. The beautiful artwork, fanciful colors, and dainty poetic script were worthy of the gold gilded frames many now call home.  These well-preserved, parchment remnants of the past are quite telling of the time in which he worked, but their beauty took a backstage as I noticed another element of the Belle Époque waiting for my attention.  Maxim’s.

Maxim’s in Paris, these three words alone conjure up images of opulence and excess: rich red walls, gold rimmed mirrors, chandeliers that dripped with jewels, art deco glass floating overhead, fresh roses on table tops, and champagne flowing like its neighbor, the Seine.  If you’ve wished for a tiny glimpse of life at the famous restaurant during the height of the Belle Époque, there is a table reserved at the museum.  Granted, it’s behind glass, but nonetheless, your eyes are rewarded with a true setting from this bygone era.  As I admired the pretty table lamp, topped with a pale pink fabric shade, my guide was quick to point out the significance, the color was chosen because of the pink glow it cast upon diners.  Everyone at Maxim’s wanted to sparkle and dazzle, the rose tinged light from the shades became an accessory that enhanced the beauty of anyone within its shadow.
While the books and museum were wonderful in enhancing my understanding of Escoffier, his essence didn’t truly come to life until I tasted one of his most famous creations, the Peach Melba. Armed with a copy of his original recipe, I set out to replicate his creation.  It is a basic dessert, consisting of vanilla ice cream topped with ripe poached peaches and a raspberry sugar glaze.  My first bite tasted like summer.  Refreshing.  It reminded me of the simplicities that accompanied my youth.  This dessert, not unlike Escoffier is memorable, not because of a complicated mixture of ingredients, but the opposite.  They are true to their origins, not attempting to be anything less and not needing to be more; neither demanding nor screaming for your affection, but both bring you back longing for more.  

Georges Auguste Escoffier is buried in Villeneuve-Loubet, but his memory and teachings live…